How inflation and unemployment numbers are calculated : Planet Money When someone says "the economy is doing well"—what does that even mean? Like, for workers, for employers, for the country as a whole? According to what calculation? How do you put a number on it?

The world of economics is filled with all sorts of "measuring sticks." GDP. Inflation. Unemployment. Consumer sentiment. Over time, all kinds of government agencies, universities and private companies have come up with different ways to measure facets of the economy. These measures factor into all kinds of huge decisions—things like government policy, business strategies, maybe even your personal career choices or investments.

On today's show, we're going to lift the curtain on two of these yardsticks. We are going to meet the people tasked with sticking a number on two huge measures of our economic well being: the official U.S. government inflation report and the monthly unemployment and jobs numbers. Come along and see how the measures get made.

This episode was hosted by Darian Woods, Stacey Vanek Smith, and Wailin Wong. It was produced by Julia Ritchey and Jess Kung with help from James Sneed. Engineering by Gilly Moon and James Willetts. It was fact-checked by Michael He and Corey Bridges, and edited by Kate Concannon and Viet Le. Alex Goldmark is Planet Money's executive producer.

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Apple Podcasts or at plus.npr.org/planetmoney.

Indicator exploder: jobs and inflation

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

When someone says the economy is doing well, what does that even mean? Like, for workers or for employers or an average of the country as a whole? Is the objective here to tame inflation, or is it to lower unemployment or to have less inequality? Is it some of these things? Is it none of these things or a mix of all of the above?

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Darian Woods. The world of economics is filled with all sorts of measuring sticks. And over time, all kinds of government agencies and universities and even private companies have come up with different ways to measure slices of the economy. And we pay attention to these measurements because they go into all kinds of huge decisions - things like government policies, but also personal investments. So today on the show, we're going to lift the curtain on two of these yardsticks. We're going to meet the people behind the inflation and jobs numbers and see how the ruler gets made.

Our first metric for the economy comes from host Stacey Vanek Smith. And this one's about inflation - the big worry of the last few years.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Inflation is just a fancy name for prices going up. And if prices start going up at a really fast pace, it can signal the beginning of a so-called inflationary spiral. That means prices going up out of control. So, like, your latte goes from $4 to $10 to $50. That can cause enormous destruction to an economy and, of course, to the savings of millions and millions of people.

WOODS: It's one of the most important indicators for any economy. It's measured using something called the Consumer Price Index, the CPI, which is a measure of the price of everything we buy. The process of calculating CPI is meticulous. It's labor-intensive. It involves hundreds of people. It's also top secret. These data are closely guarded because they need to be above suspicion and tampering. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics agreed to let us tag along for half a day.

VANEK SMITH: Yes they did. All I had to do was sign, like, eight non-disclosure agreements (laughter), but totally worth it.

WOODS: To get the inflation number every month, millions of data points are involved, gathered by around 450 dedicated workers.

EMILY MASCITIS: Hi. My name is Emily Mascitis, and I am an economist with the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

VANEK SMITH: Every month, Emily and her colleagues go on a hunt - a hunt for inflation. To do this, they track the price of, well, just about everything - rent, haircuts, trucks, toasters, raincoats, boxes of wine, burgers to go, weddings, funerals, yoga pants.

MASCITIS: And my favorite saying is, we follow prices on pretty much everything that is legal in the country.

(LAUGHTER)

WOODS: This is a huge job, and it starts with surveys taken by thousands of households, just everyday people all across the country who write down in really minute detail how they spend their money.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. So they'll write down something like, you know, I bought butter at the store. And then inflation watchers like Emily will find, you know, a particular brand of butter at a particular store, and they will track the price of it for years.

WOODS: Everything has a code. Salted butter has one code; unsalted butter has a different code. Butter in sticks - different code. Organic butter - that's also different. And this is true for every consumer product in the U.S.

MASCITIS: We have a 600-page manual for a reason.

VANEK SMITH: Really? It's 600 pages? Have you read it?

MASCITIS: There is a lot. I have.

VANEK SMITH: Really? Every page?

MASCITIS: There is a lot to learn. I have. Yep.

VANEK SMITH: Wow.

To check these prices, trackers like Emily used to drive around to stores, find a particular tub of unsalted butter or a 100% wool boatneck sweater in size eight and look at the price tag for that particular item, and then come back to that store to look at that same item month after month, which sounds really kind of old-school and needlessly labor-intensive. But this data is just that important. It has to be accurate.

WOODS: Of course, COVID changed everything. In-person was no longer an option. So now instead of walking into stores and checking price tags, now Emily's day is a lot of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)

MASCITIS: Mr. Hart (ph), this is Emily Mascitis calling with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. How are you doing today?

MR HART: Hi. Good.

WOODS: Phone calls - dozens a day. First up - a sporting goods store in Delaware.

MASCITIS: So we are just doing the Consumer Price Index update on our pair of socks.

VANEK SMITH: Socks. Of course, Darian, I cannot reveal the brand of socks because I signed a...

WOODS: It's OK (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: ...But I signed a non-disclosure agreement. It's confidential. But these are white athletic socks. Of course, they are not just any white athletic socks though.

MASCITIS: Just verifying some specifics on the item. It's knee-length. Is that correct?

MR HART: Yes.

MASCITIS: And then I have that it is 85% acrylic and 15% nylon?

MR HART: Yeah.

MASCITIS: OK, great. And I have that it has moisture wicking. Is that correct?

MR HART: Yeah, repels moisture.

MASCITIS: OK, great.

WOODS: Emily makes a note of all of this. She gets to the right code. And now the moment is here - the price.

MR HART: They're 7.99.

WOODS: Seven ninety-nine for the socks. Turns out the price hasn't changed since last month.

VANEK SMITH: So the sock indicator, Darian, telling us inflation isn't happening. But that is just one product in one store. And you cannot measure inflation using just one pair of socks. And Emily has at least 30 more price checks ahead of her today.

WOODS: And it's not just products like socks. The Consumer Price Index tracks services, too - haircuts, car repair, workout classes.

VANEK SMITH: Day care - in this case, the weekly rate for a 2-year-old at a day care in Philadelphia.

WOODS: For this one, Emily checks the price on the day care's website. She does a lot of that these days.

MASCITIS: So I have older toddler here, and the weekly full-time tuition is $320. That changed - $306, so inflation in action.

VANEK SMITH: Inflation in action. The price of day care is up 5%, about $14 a week. And that adds up. It's around $700 a year.

WOODS: So there it is. We've seen some evidence of the dreaded inflation.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. As you can imagine, Darian, I got very worked up about this. I was like, here it is, inflation in the flesh. And Emily was like, OK. Like, let's look at a few more prices, let's make some more calls. So she let me tag along to a couple more phone calls, including to a little corner store in Philadelphia to check...

WOODS: Yeah?

VANEK SMITH: ...The price of butter.

MASCITIS: It's butter. It's not that exciting (laughter).

WOODS: What?

VANEK SMITH: We will be the judge of that.

MASCITIS: I am just calling to do our monthly check on butter for the Consumer Price Index.

WOODS: Specifically, a box of four sticks, unsalted.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Four thirty-five.

MASCITIS: Four thirty-five?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes, ma'am.

MASCITIS: OK, so that's gone up 25%. It looks like the last time it was $3.49. Do you happen to know why it's increased so much?

VANEK SMITH: See? Butter is exciting. But Emily gets very focused here because this is potentially a really big moment in the inflation hunt. A price rising by that much actually requires filling out a special form. I mean, it could be evidence of spiraling inflation.

WOODS: But Emily's been doing this for years, and her spidey sense is going off. So before she fills out that special form, she asked the store owner to double check the price of that butter.

VANEK SMITH: The store owner puts the phone down, we wait for a minute, comes back on.

MASCITIS: OK, so it's not 4.35 right now?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, it's two for five.

VANEK SMITH: So it turns out he was looking at the wrong brand of butter. And, in fact, the particular butter Emily's been tracking is part of a promotion this week, two for $5. So one package costs 2.50, which is actually less than it cost last month.

MASCITIS: OK. I was getting ready to say, that's a huge increase for butter, huh? Stock up on it (laughter). I'm glad you took the time to look that up for me. That - I appreciate it.

WOODS: This is why Emily does what she does, why there's a fleet of people like Emily who check the details. These details matter. The inflation rate, it influences markets. It's got policy makers issuing statements. It even affects the price of gold. And that number comes down to this - a woman calling a supermarket in Philadelphia to check the price of butter and then double-checking to make sure the data is right. After the break - behind the scenes of the jobs numbers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOODS: Our second indicator for the economy today is job growth. Host Wailin Wong joins me to tell you about jobs numbers.

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

Jobs growth is one of our favorite economic indicators. It's this really direct measure of how the economy is going in a way that has this tangible, wide-reaching effect on everyday people.

WOODS: And, like all super fans, we love going behind the scenes. We want to go backstage to the economic statistics green rooms and eavesdrop on the bespectacled heroes entering numbers into databases. Earlier, we sat in on how price inflation data was collected, and now we're going to learn about how jobs numbers are put together. So there are two main surveys that go into the monthly jobs report - one that surveys households for things like unemployment, and there's a second survey of businesses and government agencies. This one is called the Establishment Survey. And it's where you get the jobs numbers - that X number of jobs get added to the economy any given month. And every month, the establishment survey interviews about 130,000 employers. It covers about a third of all non-farm workers in the country. Some employers complete the survey online, but a lot of it is done the old-fashioned way - over the phone.

ERICA HENNION: Hi, Darian. it's Erica Hennion with the U.S. Department of Labor. How are you doing this afternoon?

WOODS: I'm doing very well. How are you? How are you today?

HENNION: I'm doing OK.

WONG: Erica Hennion is an agent for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Department of Labor. She is one of about 300 people working the phones to paint that big picture of jobs in America. Erica used to work as a bakery manager, so she's no stranger to chatting with people.

HENNION: And I will attribute that to my mother. She's a hairdresser, so she's been a person who's always talked to people. And so I've just been around that.

WOODS: I mean, hairdressers know everything, Wailin.

WONG: Yeah, they do. I mean, I have spilled many a secret to my hairdresser.

WOODS: And this chit-chatting is really important because when we spoke, Erica was aiming to make 400 calls for the month with people who don't necessarily want to answer them.

HENNION: It gets stressful towards the end 'cause you're like, I want to make those numbers. A lot of businesses, when they call and we talk to them, they're not going to do it because it's not mandatory.

WONG: The more people who pick up the phone, the more comprehensive the survey is and the more accurate the Jobs Friday numbers will be.

WOODS: While I'm on the line, Erica calls up a professional employer organization in Arizona. This is a kind of company that shares hiring with small businesses.

HENNION: It's Erica with the U.S. Department of Labor. How are you doing today?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Doing good.

HENNION: Good.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I think I just know your voice by now when you call.

HENNION: I know. It's been a while for us.

WONG: The way the survey works is that the same business will get a call each month for anywhere between 2 and 4 years. That way, they're already familiar with how the survey works when Erica dials them.

HENNION: And so for that pay period that included May 12 then, how many total employees worked to receive pay?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Eighty.

HENNION: Eighty - went up another person. Yay. We'll take it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It doesn't happen very often lately. So we'll take it.

HENNION: No, I know.

WOODS: Erica asked a few more questions, the same she'll ask every employer - how many of their staff are women? How many are in non-supervisory roles? Total payroll costs for everybody and the total hours worked.

HENNION: Wanting me to put in a little note for the statisticians as to the reason for that increase.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

WOODS: And Erica jots down notes for why this company's employees were working more hours this month.

HENNION: But you have a very happy Memorial Day, and I'll check back in with you in June, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right. Thank you. You, too. Have a good one.

WOODS: OK. So if this is representative of the rest of the economy, then we're doing pretty good in the labor market.

HENNION: Yep. I will take any little bit of increase that I can see. Definitely (laughter). I'm relieved that that's another business that I can check off my list. And then I just put my nose to the grindstone and call the other 399 cases that I have.

WOODS: Three hundred and ninety-nine.

HENNION: We call it smiling and dialing. And you just - you call, you collect the data, you thank them, you schedule them forward and you hang up, and then you just do the next call. And then all of a sudden you look up and it's lunchtime, and you're like, where did the morning go?

WOODS: Has it gotten easier or harder to get people to respond over the years?

HENNION: It has gotten harder. It has gotten harder over the years, especially after the pandemic. There has been some pushback from different respondents that don't want to report the data because of the political economy, the way it is and everything like that. There has been some pushback. There is some distrust there. And I've actually had a few people that have yelled at me and screamed at me, and then they called me back and apologized because they realized that they took it out on the wrong person. I'm their outlet. I'm - I am the person that they can physically talk to about the government.

WONG: Well, I'm glad they at least apologize. But it's like, maybe they should call their congressperson instead of yelling at Erica.

WOODS: Yeah, absolutely. Call your congressperson.

WONG: Erica says she tries to get people to stay on the phone by helping them understand why the jobs numbers are so important. These numbers feed into town planning or business decisions about relocation and also big decisions at the central bank, the Federal Reserve.

WOODS: So remember that the Federal Reserve has two mandates. At the moment, it is really focused on getting price inflation down. But it also has the goal to keep employment high, to keep jobs high. And for those jobs numbers, the chair of the Federal Reserve and his colleagues rely on the numbers spoken to people like Erica in a Florida call center.

WONG: At the moment, the Federal Reserve might keep raising interest rates, which will make people's mortgages or car loans more expensive. And with job numbers solid, the Federal Reserve is more likely to keep raising interest rates to fight inflation. But that could change if the labor market deteriorates.

HENNION: I mean, it trickles down to your price of bread, milk and eggs. So it does affect you. You just don't see it.

WOODS: And along with explaining why the jobs report matters, Erica also makes sure to build a strong relationship with the people that she calls.

HENNION: I have a couple respondents that share a birthday. And so I'll make sure I put, like, a note in that they had a birthday, or it was their son's birthday party and ask them how everything went kind of thing.

WOODS: Oh, that's so nice.

HENNION: I've helped some people actually plan vacations to Florida...

WOODS: Oh, really?

HENNION: ...Because they've asked. They've been wanting to visit the area, and I'll help them find restaurants that locals like to eat at.

WONG: So let me get this straight. Erica's like an event planner. She remembers birthdays and special occasions.

WOODS: Yeah.

WONG: She's like a travel agent.

WOODS: I know. There are many jobs wrapped into this one interviewing job. It's so incredible. Erica also gets tips about specific industries from people like her hairdresser mother.

HENNION: I'm like, Mom - I'm like, salons - when should I not call a salon? And I try and take that into account, and I take some advice from her that Tuesdays are her busiest day. So then I might not call them on a Tuesday to follow up with them.

WONG: Erica's soft skills are critical for getting hard numbers correct. Several months ago, we had jobs reports that didn't seem so stellar, but they were later edited to be actually quite good. The numbers were revised up. And one reason for those revisions was the Bureau of Labor Statistics finally tracking down those respondents and getting their missing numbers after the deadline for Jobs Friday.

WOODS: But to get ahead of the clock, Erica does one other call, this one to a corporate office in California.

HENNION: How many total employees worked to receive pay?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That would be 506 employees.

WOODS: And I feel like it's about time for me to leave Erica to continue with her work.

HENNION: I still have another eight more calls left, and I'm here for, like, another 45 minutes.

WONG: Erica ended up collecting 298 responses before the deadline - a little less than she'd hoped, but not for lack of trying. She said there was one day where she squeezed in a massive 115 calls.

WOODS: Well, we are always looking out for those jobs numbers, so we thank you for doing the hard work, getting those three or four hundred calls every single month and getting those numbers out there.

HENNION: Well, thank you (laughter).

WOODS: These episodes were originally reported for The Indicator From Planet Money podcast, PLANET MONEY's daily podcast. Follow along if you're not already. And if you've got any slices of the economy, any metrics that you want to learn much more about, send us an email. We're at planetmoney@npr.org. This episode was produced by Julia Ritchey and Jess Kung with help from James Sneed. Engineering was done by Gilly Moon, James Willetts and Robert Rodriguez. It was fact-checked by Michael He and Cory Bridges and edited by Kate Concannon and Viet Le. Alex Goldmark is our executive producer. Special thanks to Nicholas Johnson at the Bureau of Labor Statistics who really helped to make this whole episode possible. I'm Darian Woods. This is NPR. Thank you for listening.

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